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Simple eye test may detect autism in children sooner, researchers say

By
Marilyn Malara
Testing to see where the eyes wander during a conversation can help doctor's better detect and diagnose autism in children, two separate studies suggest. Photo by norikko/Shutterstock
Testing to see where the eyes wander during a conversation can help doctor's better detect and diagnose autism in children, two separate studies suggest. Photo by norikko/Shutterstock

CLEVELAND, April 2 (UPI) -- A simple test focused on determining where a child's eyes wander may be the key to detecting autism spectrum disorders earlier and more accurately.

According to two studies by Cleveland Clinic and the University of Vermont, researchers have found a distinct connection between ASD and the eyes.

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The test may save significant time when diagnosing ASD, when previously parental reports and clinical observations were the primary techniques in detecting the disorder.

Researchers at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio took advantage of eye-tracking technology to track the amount of time at-risk patients were spending focusing on different objects. The study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, was able to correctly determine autism in 80 percent of their patients, already deemed high-risk and between ages 3 and 8.

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"Identifying children with autism early is critical to getting them appropriate interventions that will make their lives better," said study leader Thomas Frazier in a statement.

"The lack of objective methods for identifying children with autism can be a major impediment to early diagnosis. Remote eye tracking is easy to use with young children and our study shows that it has excellent potential to enhance identification and, because it is objective, may increase parents' acceptance of the diagnosis, allowing their children to get treatment faster."

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The second study, at the University of Vermont, recorded patients' gazes during verbal conversations, discovering a link between emotional conversations and focus. The study, published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, found children with ASD tend to focus on a speaker's mouth instead of their eyes during emotional discussions.

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"What you talk about really matters for children with ASD," the study's lead author Tiffany Hutchins said. "You just change a few words by talking about what people do versus how they feel and you can have a profound impact on where eyes go for information."

The findings are key to understanding how some patients with ASD handle emotional conversations as they miss out generally common social cues found in the eyes and eyebrows. A release from UVM suggested "children with ASD miss the chance to understand the relationship between facial expressions and underlying thoughts because they neglect the abundance of social meaning given in the eyes."

While some treatment programs encourage children with autism to peer into the eyes of whom they speak with, study co-author Ashley Brien said the practice can be counterproductive. "Some of the interventions that are used are not time tested or evidence based," she said. "We're hoping to change that."

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